Resurrection #1: What Is It? What Is It Not?

Jesus said…“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” – John 1:25-26

If Jesus is dead, then Christianity is dead. If Jesus is alive, then Christianity is alive. Paul himself declared as much in 1 Corinthians 15:17: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”

Apart from the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is no savior, no salvation, no forgiveness of sin, and no hope of resurrected eternal life. Apart from the resurrection, Jesus is reduced to yet another good but dead man and therefore is of no considerable help to us in this life or at its end. Plainly stated, without the resurrection of Jesus, the few billion people today who worship Jesus as God are gullible; their hope for a resurrection life after this life is the hope of silly fools who trust in a dead man to give them life. Subsequently, the doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection is, without question, profoundly significant and worthy of the most careful consideration and examination.

Defining what resurrection does and does not mean is incredibly important. Resurrection does not mean revivification. Revivification occurs when someone who dies comes back to life only to die again; revivification happens throughout Scripture.1 Unlike revivification, resurrection teaches that someone dies and returns to physical life forever, or what the Bible calls eternal life,2 patterned after Jesus’ death and resurrection.3

Resurrection does not mean there is a second chance for salvation after death, as both reincarnation and postmortem salvation wrongly purport. Reincarnation is the belief that the human soul individually migrates from one body to another through a succession of lives in pursuit of complete purification where the soul is finally joined to the ultimate reality of the divine. Postmortem salvation teaches that God pursues people beyond the boundary of death to be sure they have had a real opportunity to respond to the gospel. Hebrews 9:27 refutes both errors: “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”

Resurrection does not mean that everyone, believers and unbelievers alike, avoid hellish punishment in the end. Universalism wrongly teaches that everyone is eventually saved and goes to heaven. Annihilationism wrongly teaches that at some point following death unbelievers simply cease to exist rather than going to an eternal hell. Instead, Daniel 12:2 declares that both believers and unbelievers will rise, and some will go to everlasting heaven and others to everlasting hell, which refutes both errors: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

Resurrection does not mean what is called “soul sleep,” where both the body and the spirit lie at rest until the resurrection, as is taught by some Seventh Day Adventists.  When the New Testament speaks of believers as “asleep,” it does so as a metaphor to distinguish the death of believers from the death of unbelievers. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery says:

“The Bible also uses sleep as a metaphor for the death of the righteous. ‘Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Cor 15:20). In Christ, death is nothing more than a nap from which the righteous will awaken to endless day.4 This is why Paul speaks of his death as gain, because it means his soul goes to be with Jesus: ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’”5

Neither does resurrection simply mean life after death. This is because life after death does not initially include the physical body; rather, the body lies in the ground while the spiritual soul goes to be with God. Paul speaks of believers being “away from the body and at home with the Lord.”6

The Bible teaches that we are both a material body and an immaterial soul. Upon death these two parts are separated. Our body goes into the ground, and as believers our soul goes to be with God. For unbelievers, their soul goes to a place called by such names in the Bible as a “prison”7 and “Hades.”8 That place is a place of just suffering for unbelievers until they stand before Jesus and are sentenced to the conscious eternal torments of hell.9

Resurrection refers to the eventual reuniting of our body and soul. In his impressive seven-hundred-page tome The Resurrection of the Son of God, notable New Testament scholar N. T. Wright provides a most helpful definition of resurrection, which he repeats throughout the book as one of his main points. Wright proposes that in the first century, resurrection did not mean “life after death” in the sense of “the life that follows immediately after bodily death.”10 According to Wright:

“Here there is no difference between pagans, Jews and Christians. They all understood the Greek word anastasis and its cognates, and the other related terms we shall meet, to mean…new life after a period of being dead. Pagans denied this possibility; some Jews affirmed it as a long-term future hope; virtually all Christians claimed that it had happened to Jesus and would happen to them in the future.”11

In other words, resurrection was a way of “speaking of a new life after ‘life after death’ in the popular sense, a fresh living embodiment following a period of death-as-a-state.”12

According to Wright, the meaning of resurrection as “life after ‘life after death’” cannot be overemphasized. This is due in large part to the fact that much modern writing continues to use “resurrection” as a synonym for “life after death.” In contrast, belief in “resurrection” for the ancients meant belief in what Wright calls a “two-step story”:13

Resurrection itself would be preceded…by an interim period of death-as-a-state. Where we find a single-step story – death-as-event being followed at once by a final state, for instance of disembodied bliss – the texts are not talking about resurrection. Resurrection involves a definite content (some sort of re-embodiment) and a definite narrative shape (a two-step story, not a single-step one). This meaning is constant throughout the ancient world.14

Wright reiterates what resurrection is and what it is not:

“Resurrection” denoted a new embodied life which would follow whatever “life after death” there might be. “Resurrection” was, by definition, not the existence into which someone might (or might not) go immediately upon death; it was not a disembodied “heavenly” life; it was a further stage, out beyond all that. It was not a re-description or redefinition of death. It was death’s reversal.15

When you think of heaven, do you mainly think of life without a body or life with a resurrected body? Why or why not?

  1. E.g., 2 Kings 4:18–37; Matt. 9:18–26; 27:52–53; Mark 5:22–43; Luke 8:40–56; John 11:1–44; Acts 9:36–42; 20:9–12.
  2. E.g., John 5:24.
  3. 1 Corinthians 15.
  4. “Sleep,” in Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit, et al., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 799.
  5. Phil. 1:21.
  6. 2 Cor. 5:8.
  7. 1 Pet. 3:19.
  8. Luke 16:19–31.
  9. Rev. 20:13–14.
  10. See N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 30–31.
  11. Ibid., 31.
  12. Ibid.
  13. 13Ibid.
  14. 14Ibid.
  15. Ibid., 83.

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